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Jeth went still. Dax didn’t know Lizzie’s value to the Aether Project. And Hammer probably doesn’t either, Jeth realized. If he did, he would never have let her leave Peltraz. Hammer was too wise a businessman to make that kind of gamble. “I don’t know why,” Jeth said smoothly, “but tell me about the tracer.”

Dax grunted. “I started the program to run the trace on her just before your uncle knocked me out. I’m sure it’s located her by now. So long as she hasn’t gotten too far out of range.”

Jeth’s stomach flipped over. If they could pinpoint her location now, they’d have a better chance of getting her and Cora back than if they waited for word from Sierra’s contacts. “How does the program work?”

Dax laughed. “Nice try. You let me out of this cage, and I’ll show you where she is. I’ll even help you fetch her.”

Jeth folded his arms across his chest. “Yeah? In return for what?”

“Your help in retrieving the Aether Project from Renford. I still have my job to do. I’m great at tracking, but I’ve little experience pulling off a heist.”

Jeth supposed it made sense. Only . . . “How do you know Renford has it? You were unconscious.”

Dax pointed to the back of his head, a glint in his eyes. “Nah, I only looked unconscious.”

Jeth stepped nearer to the bars, watching Dax’s reactions carefully. “So, you’re saying that if we get you the Aether Project, you’ll let us go? All of us?”

Dax sighed. “It’s not so simple as that, as you well know.”

Jeth held his breath, braced for the worst.

“You’ll never be able to outrun him. Hammer must want you bad to have had you prepared for an implant before you’re even of age.”

Jeth flinched and resisted the impulse to touch the architecture.

Dax flexed his fingers around the bars. “Hammer made it quite clear that there were two things I had to bring back from this mission. The Aether Project files and you. Anything less than that, and he’ll kill me.”

Jeth gulped, unsurprised by this threat and believing it completely. “What about my crew?” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice and failing.

Dax shrugged. “He wasn’t as specific about them. Not that he’ll be happy if the rest of them don’t come back with us, but he might get over it. You, though, well, that’s a different story. And you’re just a kid with no resources and nowhere to go.”

Desperation made Jeth’s voice strained and tinny. “Why? What does he want with me?”

A stricken look, so out of character, crossed Dax face. He let go of the bars, then turned and sat on the bench in the rear of the cell. “What I’m about to tell you is something I’ve never willingly shared with anybody. And if you repeat any of it, I’ll kill you, no matter if you are Hammer’s latest golden boy.”

Golden boy. The words bubbled and burned like acid in Jeth’s mind.

“I was once the golden boy, too,” said Dax. “Only I wasn’t an orphan like you. I had a big family. Two sisters and three brothers. All younger. My parents were coal miners, if you can believe it. On Gallant Prime, a rathole, backwoods world if there ever was one.” He chuckled, as if in fond memory. “When I turned eighteen, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to get the hell out of that place. Not because of my family, mind you. They were great. But because of the mining. Dirty, dangerous shit. So I decided I would join Gallant Prime’s space fleet. Lucky me, I even scored so high on my entrance exam, I had my pick of jobs.”

He took a deep breath, all the good humor vanishing from his face. “And then Hammer found out how well I scored, particularly in the area of cognitive reasoning under pressure, or some such thing, and he decided he wanted me as one of his Brethren. I turned him down, but he persisted, and then he got nasty. He threatened to hurt my family, but I didn’t believe him. I mean, who takes the time to round up a bunch of harmless coal miners and torture them? I thought if I could outrun Hammer long enough, he’d give up.” Dax paused, the silence pregnant with unspoken emotion. “I was wrong.”

Even though Jeth could guess the answer already, he asked, “Did Hammer kill them?”

Dax nodded. “Except my youngest brother, who was only five at the time. Hammer spared him because I came back and let him implant one of these things.” He touched the back of his skull again. “The only reason Hammer continues to spare him is because I stay and do what he wants me to do.”

Jeth didn’t say anything. He didn’t trust his voice to speak. In the back of his mind, he remembered how Dax had called him “test baby” when they’d first met. He understood the term all too well now.

Even worse, Jeth didn’t have any trouble imagining Hammer doing the same to the people he loved. I’ve never been afraid of doing what needed to be done, he heard Hammer saying. Images flashed through Jeth’s brain, of the starving man on Peltraz, the dead, hopeless look on his face, of Trent Danforth, unrecognizable, little more than a machine, and of himself, broken and beaten when they’d placed him on that operating table.

“So,” Dax said, his voice far too casual for the topic of conversation, “I’ve been in your place before, and I learned the hard way that if you try to deny Hammer, your loved ones will pay for it in the end. But if you submit to him now, you’ve got a chance of saving them.”